An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Into the wilderness

A sermon on Mark 1: 9-15 by Alison Sampson

Many years ago, Paul and I were living in North Fitzroy; and we were married by Paul Turton at the North Carlton Baptist Church. We stood before the congregation, and uttered our vows, and were declared a wedded couple.

Straightaway, I met a surprising sequence of interesting, intelligent and attractive men. I began wondering if my own interesting, intelligent and attractive man was really the best option; or whether I had made a colossal mistake.

But then a wise old friend, an angel really, happened to mention that many people find their eyes wandering right after their wedding; and in the light of this new knowledge, the interesting, intelligent and attractive men I had met began looking rather ordinary again. Lovely chaps, all of them, but none could hold a candle to the one I had chosen.

Many of us could tell similar stories. After marriage, doubt. After baptism, doubt. After any major turning point that involves a great commitment of oneself, whether in relationships, in work, or on the journey of faith, most of us experience some measure of doubt.

It even happened to Jesus.

In those days, after many years of playing, walking, working, listening, talking, praying, Jesus was ready to take up his public ministry. And his first act was to come from Nazareth of Galilee and be baptised by John in the Jordan. As he was coming up from the waters, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am delighted.”

If Jesus had been only divine, that would have been that. He would have claimed his divine name, and moved on to great deeds of wonder and power. But Jesus was the Human One. And so, having declared himself through the act of baptism, and having been recognised in that act as God’s beloved Son, he responded in a very human way.

For the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by the Accuser, Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

This is what happens to humans. They make a significant commitment to love and to faith; they step up to their identity as children of God; and they are thrown into the wilderness. And there they are tempted by the Accuser, Satan, and are with the wild beasts.

What is the Accuser, Satan? It is the false witness, the backbiter, the slanderer, the salesman with the honeyed tongue insinuating lies. It’s the voice which whispers, straight after marriage, ‘You could do better.’ It’s the voice which raises doubts about our abilities, and our decisions, to live out our commitments, whether to other people, or to baptism, or to anything that helps shape us into the people God longs for us to become. It’s the promise of a life that looks more attractive, with more toys and higher status, and what looks like a heap more fun.

It’s the threat of laughter like a whip, which holds us to the status quo rather than risking the ridicule and mockery that come with questioning and difference. It’s the eyes which look sideways. The Satan is present every time we judge one another, every time speak ill of each other, or every time we undermine or run each other down. The Satan shows us that churches are full of hypocrites, when in truth they are full of people fighting demons. The Satan suggests that all our efforts are futile and we may as well enjoy ourselves, when in truth our efforts have meaning, and without meaning our lives turn to dust.

For forty days, Jesus was tempted by the Satan, the voice which asked whether he was really up to his mission. The voice which reminded him what happens to those who refuse to accept the current arrangements of power. The voice which wondered how a boy from Nazareth, or Moe, or any of a hundred thousand tiny backwaters, could ever do anything in the eyes of the world. The voice which urged him to prove his identity through acts of power or violence.

Jesus was tempted, and he was with the wild beasts. And what are the wild beasts? All those interesting, intelligent and attractive men I met after my marriage, which made me wonder about my commitment: I spent some time with the wild beasts of ‘pride’ and ‘lust’. Each time I get something published I collapse; and I spend time with the wild beasts of ‘self-loathing’ and ‘fear’ and ‘doubt’. The Desert Fathers, early Christian monks who sought lives of deep holiness, well knew the whole menagerie: greed, anger, arrogance, gossip, drunkenness, impatience, violence, and many others. Lions and tigers and bears, o my! This is much scarier stuff.

I wonder what wild beasts were with Jesus? Pride, perhaps, or self-doubt? Fear, both of his own potential and of the road ahead? Lack of trust in God? Mark doesn’t tell us, but we can imagine since in our own lives, choosing good paths, right paths, paths which lead us closer to God, is a sure and certain way to be catapulted into the wilderness. And the accusations and the wild beasts that we find there are all familiar to the Human One.

This is the first Sunday of Lent. Each year, Lent is a time for us to walk knowingly into the wilderness. It is a time to face the Accuser, and to be with the wild beasts that emerge when we live out our identity as God’s children. It is not the only time that we find ourselves there, since we can be thrown into the wilderness at any time. And it is not a contained time of year; what we meet with and learn in the wilderness should colour and shape the whole of our lives. But it is a focussed time and a shared opportunity to go further on our journey in imitation of Christ, when we claim our inheritance, face the Accuser, Satan, and sit with the wild beasts.

Like Jesus, we cannot do it alone. We do not have the ability to talk down the Accuser, Satan; we do not have the power to tackle the wild beasts. The wilderness can be a terrible place, arid and lonely, overwhelming and painful. But Mark tells us that God continued to care for Jesus, even in the wilderness, even in that time of anguish and doubt: for God sent angels to minister to him.

And so, if our Lenten journeys are in imitation of Christ, then we can expect angels. They won’t be chubby little cherubs available at the local gift shop. They will probably look a bit scruffy, and turn up at a time when we are struggling most and least able to welcome them. Perhaps we will encounter a messenger from God in a timely telephone call from an old friend, or in a chat with a stranger at a bus stop, or in the wise words of a six year old. Perhaps we will hear them through the words of a book, or a prayer, or a poem. Perhaps we will recognise them in a pot of soup, or a kindness on a rough day, or in some other small act of ministry.

But have no doubt. In the wilderness, in the whirlwind of convincing lies about who we are and what we are called to be, in the midst of the demons of arrogance and lust and anger and gossip and violence, angels will minister to us.

Wild beasts snap at our heels, and angels clean our wounds. This Lenten path is strange and difficult, and it leads of course to the cross. But this we know: it will be at the point when we imitate Christ, when we finally give up and hand control over to God, when we allow that which we hold so precious about ourselves to be crucified, that the wild beasts will put their tails between their legs and slink away, and the Accuser, Satan, will simply… disappear.

And then we will experience the fragrant breeze of an early-morning garden, the terror and delight of new life, an expansive, hospitable, reckless freedom that will crack our hearts open to love and to joy.

For a while. Because we are human. We are slow learners, and we will go on this journey many, many times. And so it won’t be long until we are thrown back into the wilderness, and the cycle will begin once again. Ω


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